John Surtees won world titles on two and four wheels. His spell as a Formula One team boss was not so glorious, but his feisty squad built some fine cars. Paul Fearnley drives one of the best and tells its story
John Surtees was always destined to become a constructor. At least that’s how it appeared from the outside. For he absolutely knew his own mind — how a team ought to be run, how a car should be — and would stick to his guns even if it meant irking influential people. For instance, he turned his back on Lotus before the 1961 season because he felt that Colin Chapman wasn’t being honest with him. He then convinced Lola’s Eric Broadley to build and badge — a rare occurrence for this prolific yet low-key designer — a Formula One car for ’62.
By 1963, he felt ready to join Ferrari; he pulled a lethargic team up by its bootstraps and secured a surprise F1 title the following season. Yet he left the Scuderia just as he appeared ready to really cash in; he had tired of its incessant internal politics. However, not long before this, the shock move of ’66, he’d persuaded Enzo, not a man renowned for concessions, to let him to set up Team Surtees in order that he could run another manufacturer’s cars. The Old Man knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.
Then came Honda, and the Japanese way of doing things, in 1967. Surtees boldly concluded that its car wasn’t up to it and that he should build one for its singing V12. Thus the ‘Hondola’ emerged from his Slough workshop and won thrillingly at Monza. But Honda had come to learn as much as to win, and its mechanics and engineers were shuffled with unsettling alacrity before the programme was shelved at the end of ’68.
And so to 1969 — the worst year of his career: BRM in F1 and Chaparral in Can-Am, campaigns of which neither of these famous teams can be proud. Surtees became sick with worry — literally, he finished the season with viral pneumonia! — about the opportunities that were slipping by. Yet it was only now, after all of the above, that his famous name appeared on the nose of an F1 car — and even then, he insists that it came about completely by accident.
“I was in America doing the 1968 Can-Am series when I was introduced to James Garner [the actor],” Surtees explains. “He was keen to boost his image via motor racing — I think he felt a poor relation to Steve McQueen — and he told me that he wanted to contest the Formula A  series in America. But he didn’t just want to buy a car, he approached me about building a car.
Surtees knew that Len Terry — the fastest pencil in the west — had a suitable design on the go; there is some debate, however, as to which one. It’s often stated that Surtees took over the Leda project; but according to Terry, Leda came later and the half-built car which morphed into the 1969 Surtees TS5 was originally commissioned by Roger Nathan, whose money had run out. (What’s more, Terry lays claim to the T in the original TS.) The bottom line, however, was that Surtees wasn’t impressed with the car when he first tested it.
“The original idea was for me to act as an agent, to develop the car and then hand the project over to Garner — for a commission.” he says. “But the cars would have my name on them so I wanted them to be right; I put in more work than anticipated.
“Len did some modifications and we decided to run in the [inaugural] UK F5000 series, too. Things went pretty well for us, but the Americans were unhappy and so I sent David Hobbs over to sort things out. The truth of the matter is that their money had been spent; I wasn’t going to get paid and so I took over the project.”
Surtees was now, at last, on the constructor “roller coaster”. He moved his operation from Slough to Edenbridge in Kent — and determined to take his F1 matters into his own hands.
The TS7 that appeared at the 1970 British Grand Prix was neat, simple and distinctive with its delta nose on a narrow, sharp-edged body. It did well, too, Surtees rising to as high as seventh (from 20th on the grid) before its oil pressure sagged. He was the ‘man on the move’ in Holland and Austria, too, before two more engine failures forced him out.
And then he won the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup, prevailing with some comfort in the first 20-lap heat, and finishing runner-up in the second to pip on aggregate the Lotus 72 of Jochen Rindt The team’s first championship points came one month later (fifth at Mont Tremblant). Two weeks later still, Derek Bell, in the second TS7, scored the only F1 point of his career (sixth at Watkins Glen). It had been an impressive beginning, but eponymity had its frustrations, too.
‘The budget was meagre [£23,000] and we had to come up with a design that suited our pockets,” explains Surtees. “TS7’s shape was dictated by the funds and facilities available to us. I actually used some of my motorcycle contacts: its bulkheads are made of Reynolds 531 tubing.”
Circumstances dictated that the TS9 of 1971 be a derivative: longer wheelbase, wider track and lower CoG. And it, too, was quick out of the blocks. New recruit Rolf Stommelen lost a probable victory in the non-championship Argentinian GP because of a moment of madness early in its second heat, while a seized gearbox cost Surtees a strong finish at Kyalami he was second, ahead of the Ferrari of eventual winner Mario Andretti, when the unit began to stiffen. But thereafter fortunes slumped — barring a second Gold Cup victory for Surtees. That changed with the arrival of Mike Hailwood.
‘The Bike’ had made a faltering start to his car career, but he clicked with his fellow motorcycle legend and, after strong performances in the TS8 F5000 machine, was called into the F1 squad for Monza. He played a key role in that amazing race, crossing the stripe in the lead on five occasions and finishing fourth — 0.18sec behind Peter Gethin’s BRM. Plans for Surtees to give his new side-rad TS9B its debut had been put on hold because of overheating worries, but John was delighted for Mike. He knew, though, that a tough decision was looming: to continue to race or to concentrate on running the team.
Australian Tim Schenken was signed to partner Hailwood in F1 in 1972, but John raced the F2 TS10 — in which he scored two wins and Hailwood took the European title. He also contested two F1 races — the International Trophy at Silverstone (third) and the Italian GP — and did much of the F1 testing.
Schenken: “There were days when I would be called to Goodwood for a test and I’d arrive at 9am and wait there all day while John drove round. Then, with about 20mins to go, he’d ask me to get in and see what I thought. The seat, pedals and wheel were all set up for him… It was a difficult situation.”
Surtees: “Quite frankly, we couldn’t do a lot of testing because we couldn’t afford to put big mileages on our engines. If a new part had to be assessed, I would normally do it. I don’t think that detracted from the team; from Mike Hailwood’s point of view, it’s what he wanted.”
There was logic to it — Surtees’ superb driving and chassis-sorting abilities came free to a financially stretched team — but it perhaps wasn’t the best example of motivational skills. Nor was Schenken’s racing of a Motul Rondel-run F2 Brabham in direct competition to the Matchbox-backed Surtees squad!
Schenken: “We were very different characters. I don’t want to take anything away from John — he was a fantastic driver. He didn’t have much budget to play with and he was doing all he could to make his team succeed.”
Schenken drove chassis 006 — the car you see here — for the bulk of the season. It was the newest of the team’s three chassis — pay driver Andrea de Adamich had been added to its roster. It was also the car in which James Hunt would finish third on his F1 debut, the 1973 Race of Champions.
“It was nice to drive; it reminded me of the Brabham I had driven in 1971,” says Schenken. “But it had the same problem as the Brabham: it just couldn’t quite get its power down onto the road.”
He’s right, it certainly feels beautifully balanced, stiffer than the Lotus 72 I tested last year. And, after a spate of recent ham-fisted struggles, my right hand finally alights upon a gearbox that at least makes me feel like a racing driver. Its lever flies around the gate; the faster your wrist can flick it, the happier this Hewland FG400 is. Such snappy cog selection frees up a typically willing and punchy DFV and, for what it’s worth, I push it harder than any previous F1 car I’ve dropped my desk-driving backside into. I even break my own golden rule: come in on the lap you think, ‘Just one more lap.’ Twice.
Schenken finished fifth in the season-opener at Buenos Aires, despite the gear lever coming off in his hand — he threw it at his pitcrew! Then Hailwood set Kyalami alight. From the second row of the grid, he disposed of Denny Hulme (McLaren M19A) and Emerson Ettipaldi (Lotus 72), setting the race’s fastest lap in the process and rushing up to the gearbox of Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell. Mike had the champion all tucked up it was only a matter of time. And then a bolt on his TS9B’s rear suspension snapped.
Silly little things hit the team hard: an overheated engine caused by a failing pressure cap cost Mike victory in the subsequent International Trophy, and had he not lost his airbox because of a broken spring clip, he might have won the Italian GP instead of finishing second.
“One of the problems we had was that we had a big turnover of mechanics,” says Surtees. “We had some very good people, real stalwarts who stayed with me right to the end, but a lot of guys learned their trade with us and were then lured away by teams who could pay them a better wage. Outsiders tended not to realise the sort of compromises we were having to make in order to stay alive.”
Between them Hailwood (13), de Adamich (3) and Schenken (2) rustled up 18 points, making a two-year total of 26 for the TS9 family — both marks upon which Surtees would fail to improve.
With Brazil’s Carlos Pace replacing Schenken for 1973, Surtees had what he believed to be his best-ever driver line-up — and, in the shape of TS14, his best car. His team, however, was stymied by outside influences.
The new car was ready too soon (!), Surtees running it at Monza in 1972, his last GP start. It conformed to the new-for-73 side-impact regs, but by the time the season came around, argument had shaved a little off the rules, leaving the Surtees a bit overweight. Not only that, but Firestone had withdrawn at the end of 72 — and then un-withdrawn one month later; it was in a bit of a pickle. Lotus switched to Goodyears, and was still dialling into them as TS14 set the pace at the big Kyalami test in January — on last year’s Firestone. Come the races, though, grip was suddenly very scarce. Ironically, Firestone had plumped for the tyre that had better suited the black-and-gold 72s; TS14 tended to burn through them, especially the fronts.
And if the tyres didn’t get them, Jody Scheckter did, the impulsive young South African wiping out all three Surtees in Silverstone’s ‘motorway pile-up’. Pace impressed, setting fastest laps in Germany and Austria while finishing third and fourth, but it was in the main another year put down to experience.
The Silverstone wreckage had forced Surtees deeper into the red. Thank God, then, for the (just) six-figure sponsorship from Bang & Olufsen for 1974-75. John at last felt able to plan ahead, and he had a new factory built in Edenbridge. He would never move into it. He’d irked somebody influential, telling a paymaster that his wannabe racing driver son wasn’t quite the ticket. The money went elsewhere in ’75 at the last minute, and a two-year court case ensued. This drained vital time and energy in return for only ‘costs’. The team survived until ’78, but it never recovered from this financial hammer blow. It’s still a painful topic for Surtees…
“I’m my own worst critic, and I look back and see things that I didn’t get right. Yes, we weren’t far off and at times we competed with the best, but when compared with my career as a driver, my team was a disappointment. That was not entirely our fault, there were factors beyond our control, but I set high standards and we didn’t achieve them.”
Hard but fair. Like the man himself.